WASHINGTON, D.C. (WUSA)-- Here's something to think about as another school year gets underway: of the six million kids who have food allergies in the U.S., as many as one in four have their first reaction at school. Now there's an effort to make sure teachers and other school staffers know how to use life-saving EpiPens (syringes pre-filled with epinephrine).
Thirteen year old Nerissa Cole carries her own EpiPen and knows she has to be vigilant as she heads back to school because of dangerous allergies to nuts and fish.
If Nerissa even touches or tastes these foods, "My throat closes up, and then its like, I can't breathe," she says.
At a recent Washington Nationals game, she started to eat some vegetarian chili, which her family assumed to be safe. That is, until her mother spotted what looked like a peanut, and snatched the chili away.
Ruth Anderson-Cole remembers, "By that time she's getting ready to dip her chip in there. I was like 'Nic, what are you doing?' Put that down. There are nuts in there!"
Cole contacted both the D.C. Health Department and the restaurant that served the chili to ensure signs were put up to warn patrons about certain dishes containing nuts.
At school, children can be exposed to dozens and dozens of different foods. Even with vigilance about allergen-free tables in the cafeteria and keeping kids' lunches separate, thousands of severe reactions happen each year. Many adults are unable or unsure how to help.
Dr. D.J. Sherzer, MD, an emergency medicine specialist with Nationwide Children's Hospital says, "Approximately half of those people actually had epinephrine in the vicinity. It was available to them, it just wasn't used or it wasn't used in time."
Dr. Sherzer says adults may feel intimidated about injecting a child, so teaching school staffers how to use EpiPens in an emergency is paramount.
Dr. Robert Wood, M.D. is director of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. He says he's seen the same lack of epinephrine usage in a study of pre-schoolers. Seventy percent of the children who had a life-threatening food allergy reaction were not given the shot by parents or caregivers.
Dr. Wood says, "Even though the medicine was available to them, it wasn't given. And that's typical because people are scared to give the medicine, or in the panic of the attack, they are not sure what to do."
Dr. Wood says some adults give an oral antihistamine like Benadryl, in hopes that it will reverse the reaction. But in the case of anaphylaxis (airway swelling and the inability to breathe), this will not work, and death can be the result.